Monday, December 3, 2012

Pasolini & Callas: Medea Brutal and Beautiful

I first saw the Pasolini/Callas film of Medea in my teens and was highly critical of it, finding it disappointing on almost all counts: terrible sound editing, cheap film stock, over bright lighting, bizarre, amateurish acting styles, inadequately edited, etc. Then there was the extended murder scene of Glauce and Creon going seemingly on forever, and then . . . wait; what's this? It's repeated all over again? Did someone get the wrong reel into the house?



Another ten years went by before I watched it again and after the second viewing, found myself emotionally drained, my jaw on the floor with the realization that I'd just finished a film that alternately horrified, fascinated and astonished me.

Medea is a grim, violent, film, minimally processed which only adds to its gruesome, wild rawness. This is Pasolini's Medea, not Euripedes and it is not easy viewing. Its wild, African/Middle Eastern score with the nasal bleating of women's voices in near pre-historic sounding rhythmic chant adds further to the element of being "out there" this film produces: This is about as far away from popular cinema as one can get. Medea doesn't easily compare to films of any other style or genre; not even with some of Pasolini's other work. But, if you can succumb to its hypnotic, mesmerizing pace at once both frenetic and static - you will realize this is as about as close to a hallucinatory experience one can achieve without the use of an illegal substance. Granted, not everyone wants that experience.

As Medea, Callas is simply amazing. There is no other way to put it. And yet, oddly enough when the film came out she was roundly criticized for not being able to transfer the magic she so naturally gave on stage to the big screen. I strongly disagree. The more I watch this film (which is probably several times a year for well over a decade), the more amazed I am by her performance in it. Yes, I, too, had initially been critical of her almost languid weirdness, but have grown to see her
commitment to the role as formidable and I am forever riveted by her painfully expressive mask as she completely inhabits this character who is, quite literally, capable of, well, everything (yes everything is the correct word).


Where I was once critical of the lighting, I've grown up to realize what Pasolini did; why he chose to film at the times of day he chose, and the resulting, fascinatingly brutal and surreal luminosity that bathes the entire film and the almost palpable sense of its visual texture. Stunning.

The landscapes Pasolini chose to film in are as brutal and as vital as the characters of the tale. His near excision of all spoken text (the screenplay is nearly dialogue free) brings us into a timeless, yet somehow still ancient world where all may be understood without the use of verbal communication. The savage, bloody rites of sacrifices for fertility and harvest initially seem barbarous then become somehow beautiful and fascinating. Then they make one cringe with the realization of how, not so long ago, this was us.

A remarkable, savage and beautiful film.


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